Cold texting with the right touch

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Seen through the frame of his sister’s mailbox, Oak Lawn residents Bill Bradshaw, left, and Matt Dillon show off an envelope for their new business, Letters for Tomorrow, at her home along Menard Avenue in Oak Lawn, Il on Wednesday April 13, 2011. Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

Chicagoans who must brave the cold to wait for a bus or train now have a home-grown solution to tapping their smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices without taking off their gloves.

Brian Shy, a 29-year-old Ukrainian Village resident, has invented “digits” – mini conductive pins that stick on the fingertips of gloves and “communicate” with electronic devices.

Each “digit” – a metal pin – pierces through a glove’s fingertip with a small enough hole so as not to damage the glove. The pins’ conductive silicone carries a charge to the electronic device’s screen, which activates the device’s “touch” function.

Shy, who is pursuing a dual medical and doctorate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, got the idea when he realized he couldn’t get his smartphone to respond when he tried to use it outside while he wore gloves.

He put conductive thread into his gloves as a test, and it worked.

“I wanted to think of a way people wouldn’t have to use a needle and thread like I did to sew the thread into the glove,” Shy said.

He didn’t do anything about his discovery until he saw an article in an airline magazine about crowdsourcing – the online phenomenon in which startups get ideas and funding by networking via web-based social media.

The article mentioned Quirky.com, where people can submit their inventive ideas. People who log onto the site may monitor an idea’s progress and vote on certain aspects of the idea. Voters have a chance to receive a percentage of the profits of a creation if it successfully goes to market. Quirky’s design and sales teams also recommend improvements on ideas.

How to achieve Shy’s goal of eliminating the sewing?

Participants on Quirky.com suggested everything from conductive sponges that wrapped around a person’s fingers to paint that people could dip their gloves into.

“It’s fun, but also terrifying, when lots of people weigh in on your ideas. It’s your baby. It’s like a roller coaster ride,” Shy said.

“Lots of special gloves are out on the market to use with smartphones and electronic devices, but with ‘digits,’ you can use the gloves you already have,” Shy noted.

In addition to saving money by keeping one’s gloves, the conductive silicone helps gloves stand up to wear and tear better than gloves made with conductive threads, said Jordan Diatlo, a member of Quirky.com’s design team.

Digits come in packs of four for $11.99 on Quirky’s website.

Of the experience, Shy said, “It has been cool and fun. And the money is nice, too.”

Bill Bradshaw and Matt Dillon, both of Oak Lawn, got their idea – planning in advance when to share in writing one’s deepest wishes, hopes and dreams – while they talked about the world’s problems over beers a year ago. Bradshaw, 52, credits Dillon, 45, with being the brains behind it.

They came up with the idea for “Letters for Tomorrow,” in which people write their most personal thoughts, dreams, advice, goals and any other wish they want to convey at a future date to a loved one, a family member or even to themselves.

Bradshaw, a self-described dreamer who has come up with ideas for a portable cooler and plant décor for trees, envisions a bigger future.

The “Letters for Tomorrow” website (LettersforTomorrow.com) encourages letter writers to share their stories publicly at the site’s “letters” section.

Bradshaw believes the on-line stories could evolve into a movie or TV mini-series with a following akin to the buzz that accompanied the online video of Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” or the Chinese postal authorities’ service, launched this past fall, that allows newlyweds to post a letter that their partner receives seven years later in hopes of keeping the marriage intact on the “seven-year itch” anniversary. Pausch gave “The Last Lecture” before he died of cancer – a monologue that went viral for its inspirational messages.

Dillon and Bradshaw invested $3,500 of their savings and their own and friends’ free time into creating the business.

Here’s how it works: Go to LettersForTomorrow.com, order a personal “time capsule” for $5 plus shipping and handling charges, attach a date sticker of the future date when you want it sent, and send your thoughts, dreams, advice, photos and Secure Digital (SD) memory card of photos or other digital memorabilia to the Letters for Tomorrow headquarters in Oak Lawn. The letters use “forever” stamps. The memories are then postmarked to be sent at that future date, whether it’s one year or 20 years later.

One of the company’s clients said she will be asking guests at her son’s wedding to write their advice and wishes during the reception so they can be mailed on the couple’s one-year anniversary. The mom will include in the mailing her own photos in a memory card.

Though the idea could be considered a throwback to another era – after all, e-vites are all the rage, the Postal Service has suffered a 26-percent drop in first-class mailings in the past five years, and many schoolchildren no longer learn cursive writing –some handwritten niches continue to thrive, such as custom stationery and “smart” pens that record and play back audio.

Russ Williams, president of Invention Home (InventionHome.com), a Monroeville, Pa.-based invention and product marketing company, said companies’ newly welcoming attitudes about “open innovation” and TV programs featuring inventors and innovations, such as “Shark Tank” and “Modern Marvels,” have prompted a surge of first-time inventors pursuing new ideas.

“Companies need to innovate to stay competitive, so we find that they are more willing and eager to accept ideas from outside sources,” Williams said.

As the process of invention becomes more valid, Williams advises would-be inventors to be objective about their idea by making sure it solves a problem at an effective price, research patents to make sure none already exists for the same idea, and figure out a business model, such as whether to file a patent quickly and whether to build one’s own business or license the product to another company.

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